This blog was originally posted on the RSPB’s climate change blog
It is hard to think of anywhere currently more prominent in the public eye than Paris. The hashtag #eyesonParis captures the sense that people around the world are looking on – some with hope, some with trepidation, and some with anger – at what is decided at the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties (COP21), which is poised to agree a new international agreement on climate change. With the recent terrorist attacks still ringing in people’s minds, it feels to me that Paris has come to articulate hope, fear, possibility, risk, change, defiance and solidarity all at the same time.
Last week I was there in my role as International Delegate for the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC). The RSPB is also attending the conference, together with colleagues from Birdlife International, pushing for an ambitious global treaty in order to protect humans and wildlife alike from the worst impacts of climate change. The RSPB’s recent report, The Nature of Climate Change, outlines the various ways in which European wildlife is likely to be affected – and it does not paint a pretty picture. At a more detailed level, RSPB colleagues are also seeking to influence the negotiations to ensure measures to reduce deforestation contain protection for important wildlife and ecosystems and for all emissions from forests and land to be accounted.
In the face of all there is to lose as a result of climate change – from precious wildlife and the beauty of the natural world, to livelihoods and entire countries in the case of some small island states – young people gathered ahead of COP21 in a three-day Conference of Youth (COY), to prepare for the upcoming negotiations. The UKYCC were there in force, making connections with the other 5,000 young people from around the world who had come to Paris to show political leaders that young people will not stand for a deal that does not protect current and future generations from climate change, and which protects the things we love and fight for that are at risk.
Whilst this message is undeniably crucial, and the deal that is agreed by the UN in Paris will have major implications for the actions that are taken on climate change around the world, some of the most inspiring sessions for me at COY were those that focused on people taking action on climate change in their own communities, rather than waiting for leaders to act. For example, I was struck by a session held by young climate leaders from Kenya, Namibia, the Philippines and Ecuador, showcasing how each of them are taking action – from educating other young people on climate change and skilling them up to be able to engage with policy dialogues, to defending rainforests and installing small-scale renewable energy projects in the places where they live.
Another aspect of COY that struck me was the range of motivations that people have for engaging with the International Youth Climate Movement (IYCM). For some, climate change is already having tangible impacts on the places they live, such as through drought, crop failure, pollution, flooding or biodiversity loss. For others, climate change still feels like a ‘future problem’ that resonates intellectually, but can be kept at arms length. As one of the other sessions at COY discussed, everyone has their own ‘climate story’ and their own reason for being involved and having come to Paris to be part of this moment.
However, it struck me that a common theme amongst many people’s stories was the role of nature weaved in – whether it is the fight to protect the natural world, or the risk of losing something vital that it provides such as clean drinking water or land to grow food. Climate change collapses the distance between people and nature as it threatens the survival and prosperity of both equally, and motivations to act on climate change seem to become intrinsically linked as a result. Like Paris itself, climate change means multiple things at once – which both adds to the strength of the movement, and the terrifying nature of the challenge.
By the end of the conference, despite (or perhaps by virtue of) the range of motivations, backgrounds and perspectives that COY brought together, the young people in attendance had produced a Youth Manifesto outlining what we believe must be included in the UN climate agreement. This was presented by a fellow UKYCCer to the French President Francoise Hollande, one of the most powerful people within COP21, who agreed that it was vital for the voices of young people to be heard as it is their futures most at risk from climate change.
As the negotiations draw to a close, and the final battles over what is included and excluded from the text are fought, I hope that the negotiators can capture some of the spirit of COY and the willingness of young people to come together and make compromises, to protect this planet that is our home. The wider climate change movement could also learn from this – for some people the motivation is wildlife protection, for others it is social justice; some have faith in institutional processes, whilst others people action comes from the bottom up. All eyes are on Paris, and all see differently. I hope that the spirit of COY and the strength gathered from its diversity succeed in finding their way into the UN conference halls.